Will the new United Airlines boarding process survive Thanksgiving?

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With great fanfare, United Airlines announced their latest attempt at boarding passengers faster than ever. It’s called “WILMA” because the new process allows the windows seats to board first, the middle-seat passengers second, followed by the aisle passengers who are forced to wait until every other passenger is aboard.

All of this to shave 120 seconds off the boarding time. 

Airlines have struggled for decades with the best way to board planes so that seconds can be shaved off the turn time. The faster an airline can turn that silver revenue tube the better, because no airplane makes money sitting on the ground. 

Southwest Airlines needed fast turns in 1972 to save the airline. The carrier had just four planes and a very aggressive schedule; the only way they could make it work was to adopt (and then perfect) a 10-minute turn. Yes, a 600-second turn time.

Employees at Southwest were told it was the only way to help the carrier to survive — and they found a way to do it, helping the airline to finally achieve profitability.

This approach would never work now, for a variety of reasons — the most obvious being that in those days flight attendants would go to each row and hand passengers their luggage from the overhead compartments. This way, the door would open, and you would have an immediate and quick departure process, and then the same process would occur when passengers boarded the flight.

Most Southwest passengers at the time were businessmen and -women who traveled with little to no luggage, making this an impossible option today.

It is with that “save time” mentality that airlines have tested various ways to board airplanes. The Flying Carpet Method approach was created as a way to board small groups of passengers but in different parts of the aircraft, allowing space between groups and a faster process of storing luggage and sitting down.

The Steffen Method was developed by an astrophysicist who proposed a method of staggering airline boarding. This method’s goal was to also have passengers spaced out.

The Boarding from the Back Method is being used by a few airlines where passengers exit the plane using the front door while new passengers would be required to board from the rear of the aircraft. This means walking across the tarmac, waiting in all kinds of weather and then climbing the steps at the pace passengers exit the aircraft. One good thunderstorm or blizzard shows why this approach can be considered only in the best of conditions. 

Southwest’s current approach is the Random Seating Method. Board the plane and take your seat anywhere you like, which was a stroke of genius when it was created. Passengers in the early days would board in the order they arrived at the airport, thereby rewarding those who checked in early and penalizing those who arrived late. But over the years, the advent of preferred boarding groups based on frequent-flier status and the ability to pay to board earlier has tainted this approach.

All of these methods have a flawed central concept: that passengers will do exactly what they are told as they board. Anyone who has worked a week in a gate area realizes this is not the case. That’s why United’s latest attempt at building a better mousetrap will fail — and soon.

United actually tried this approach seven years ago at a handful of test stations. The window passengers would board, followed by the middle-seat passengers. When everyone was settled, the aisle passengers would board last and, to their dismay, the overhead storage compartments were all but filled. Passengers who had already boarded had stuffed all available storage space with their luggage and little if any room was left, meaning the passengers who were forced to board last had to gate check their luggage. This meant a lengthy stop in the luggage claim area, which is exactly what people who carry their luggage on board want to avoid.

United’s test failed miserably. Yet now, some executive in a corner office thinks it is the best thing since sliced bread — it makes perfect sense on paper, and there is no reason why it won’t work. Delays are costly and if a few minutes per turn can be shaved off, it means more potential revenue.

Now that the former and failed approach has been rolled out again, it’s no surprise that passengers seated in aisle seats are complaining. In this era of preferred seating, the aisle passengers have paid more for their seat assignment than the window passenger (and certainly a heck of a lot more than the poor sap stuck in the middle seat) — and these are the passengers you want to tick off, United? 

United Airlines employees and passengers have also expressed their dislike of the latest model, but those cries for sanity have been ignored.

United executives have responded by saying their newer aircraft have more than enough storage space for each passenger. Unfortunately, those executives failed to realize that the larger and newer airplanes will not be fully in place until late 2025.

The best way to board an aircraft remains the Back-to-Front method, but it cannot be used because passengers who are sitting in row 35 will toss their carry-on luggage over rows 12 and 13 as they walk by. This creates the same issue as before, having passengers who board last discover no overhead storage space is available — except for the rear of the airplane, and who wants that?

The more than 30 million people expected to fly over the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday will give United a chance to test their hypothetical boarding process. While the failure won’t be as famous as the sitcom episode that featured a Turkey Drop, I suspect it will come close, because this latest attempt won’t fly — “as God as my witness.”

Jay Ratliff spent over 20 years in management with Northwest/Republic Airlines, including as aviation general manager. He is an iHeart aviation analyst.

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